March 12, 2010

A haven from violence, war

DAVID HENCH

— By

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer... Reaman Naser, 11, watches while her mother Knat prepares lunch in their apartment at the Portland Family Shelter in Portland on Thursday, December 11, 2008. In the background, Audai Abbas Naser holds his his two-year-old son Zachariy. Naser fled Iraq with his wife and family after their 12-year-old daughter was shot at their home in Karbala by thieves.

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer... Back to front, Ali Naser, 7, Zachariy, 2 and Zenib, 5 in their apartment at the Portland Family Shelter on Thursday, December 11, 2008.

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Staff Writer

Khald Mazal was kidnapped by militia fighters in Baghdad, held for ransom and forced to dig his own grave, only to be rescued at the last minute by American soldiers.

Gunmen shot Audai Abbas Naser's 12-year-old daughter in front of him and his family at their home in Karbala to compel him to surrender the keys to his bus.

Mazal and Naser and their families are among three dozen Iraqi war refugees who have arrived in Portland since Oct. 20. They are in the first wave of an estimated 200 to 300 Iraqi war refugees expected to move here over the next few months from other U.S. cities, according to Portland officials.

Their arrival has focused attention on the experience of refugees, many of whom faced violence and persecution in their home countries. For refugees like Mazal and Naser, their move to Portland is not just an attempt to find a better future -- it's a chance to create a new, secure life and raise their families in safety.

''The country that I lived in didn't protect me, didn't protect even my family,'' Naser said through an interpreter during an interview at Portland's family shelter.

Naser brought his wife and seven remaining children to Portland on Nov. 19 because they were afraid of the crime in Atlanta, where the family was originally settled over the summer.

''My main aim was to find safety and security for me and my children,'' he said.

Naser, 37, was born in Basra, in southern Iraq, but his family fled during the Iraq-Iran war when exploding shells were landing in their neighborhood. He settled in Karbala and eventually bought a bus that he used to drive people to Najaf or Baghdad, deriving a comfortable living from the fares he collected.

Eventually, he was able to own three vehicles.

But he does not recall a time when his country was not at war.

After the U.S. invasion, his three vehicles made him a target for militants looking for money and cars to support their cause.

They showed up at his house one night in 2005. While some stood guard outside, four masked men herded the entire family into a back room and demanded that he hand over the keys to his vehicles. He refused to surrender his livelihood in spite of their threats.

Then they shot his 12-year-old daughter, Sarah.

Naser handed over the keys, then covered his daughter's body with a cloth so the children would not see the blood.

''They saw that man shoot their sister,'' he says, nodding toward three of his children. ''Their mother up to now can't forget that image of how they shot her daughter. She always has a nightmare about it, sometimes crying a lot.''

Naser said he recognized some of the men, and they ordered him to move away or they would return to kill the whole family.

Naser soon went to Baghdad, and after a month, was able to obtain the paperwork needed to enter Syria. The family lived there for three years, and Naser was able to earn a meager income sewing pajamas and women's dresses.

FAMILY GRANTED REFUGEE STATUS

U.S. State Department and Department of Homeland Security officials said they cannot confirm the accounts of Naser, Mazal and other refugees for confidentiality reasons, but said that such reports of violence against people of different religious backgrounds are not unusual.

Before granting refugee status and allowing settlement in this country, the United Nations and U.S. agencies confirm that refugees have a legitimate fear of persecution if they return to their home country.

Naser's family was given permission to leave Syria for Atlanta on Aug. 14.

''To be fair, I don't find peace there. There is a lot of robberies and killings in the area I was settled,'' he said of Atlanta.

Naser heard from friends who spoke highly of Portland.

''It's a beautiful city. We felt it's secure and safe,'' Naser said. He said he appreciates Portland's generosity, and plans to integrate into his new home.

''In America, you have to work in order to live, you have to participate in order to progress,'' he said.

DRIVEN OUT OF ATLANTA BY CRIME

Mazal, 44, who arrived at the family shelter with his wife and three children on Dec. 3, said he also came for the safety of his family.

After four months in Georgia, the family had seen a sharp cut in local benefits, he said, and they could no longer afford rent.

''We really made an effort to find a job,'' Mazal said through an interpreter. ''Almost every individual applied for about 30 jobs, but we couldn't find any job.''

Faced with possibly being put out on the street, he opted to move.

''The family's safety is the most important thing, especially for the kids,'' he said. ''In Georgia, at 5 p.m., we go inside our house and we can't go out. Now, here we can stay out until 8 or 9 p.m. without fear.''

Mazal was an officer in the Iraqi army, conscripted when he was in high school. His position earned him a car and a piece of land, but after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of Kuwait and the international community responded with sanctions, he struggled to survive. Only those close to Saddam lived in luxury, Mazal said.

His family's needs were even more acute because one of his daughters requires regular medical attention for a blood disorder.

After the U.S. and its allies toppled Saddam's government in 2003, the army was disbanded. His daughter, now 15, was no longer welcome at the hospital despite her life-threatening condition because her name identifies her as a Sunni and the hospital was in a Shiite neighborhood.

Then came the night when a neighbor came to the house, intent on shooting Mazal because of the family's Sunni heritage. In the dark, the gunman shot at his son, but missed. The family moved and spent a year staying with family members, depending on relatives for food and supplies.

''We were living in a terrifying situation,'' he said. ''We would just eat and sleep.''

CAPTURED, TORTURED, THEN RESCUED

In 2005, three cars blocked the car that Mazal was driving, and militia members dragged him into one of their cars, blindfolded him and drove off.

For three days he was held captive, blindfolded and bound, surrounded by the sounds of other people being tortured. They would hit and kick him. They pressed a gun against his head, manipulated the slide as if to chamber a round, and pulled the trigger.

But there was no bullet, just psychological torture.

They called his family and demanded money, but they had none, Mazal said.

Then they made him dig a grave in the earthen floor, and ordered him to lie down in it. He said he was praying when he heard voices yelling, ''American forces here! American forces here!'' His captors fled, and he was taken to the hospital with the other hostages.

After Mazal was reunited with his family, he knew he had to flee his homeland. He sold off what possessions they had and obtained identification papers that enabled them to cross the border into Syria, which has accepted about 1.5 million Iraqi refugees since the war began.

There, the family lived for three years. The children attended school, but the parents were unable to find work and had to spend all their savings. They were granted refugee status, and in August were settled in Atlanta.

The people he has encountered in Maine are nicer, Mazal said. Twice now in Maine, when he has asked for directions, the people not only direct him, they also accompany him to his destination.

Here, his daughters can get the medical care they need and all his children will have the opportunity to learn and pursue a career, he said.

His goals for his children, he said, are shaped by their dreams. His oldest daughter wants to be a designer, and his 20-year-old son wants to work with computers. His youngest daughter, 13, wants to become a scientist doing research on her older sister's medical condition.

SURVIVING UNTIL THEY FIND WORK

For now, though, they are securing the basics. They have applied for food stamps and other government assistance, to survive until they are able to find work. They are working to improve their English.

Mazal said he is practicing the language by reading ''The Merchant of Venice'' and ''Oliver Twist.'' He has seen the movie ''The Godfather'' 20 times, and his family loves ''Titanic'' and ''Pretty Woman.'' But it's the movie ''The Shawshank Redemption'' that resonates most powerfully for him.

Mazal empathizes with the story of the falsely accused prisoner who endures harsh treatment for years while painstakingly digging his way out of prison.

''When somebody has to do something, they will do it,'' said Mazal. ''That's why I will study and I will get my (educational) certificate from here. I must speak English and write English very well and I will find a decent job.''

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer... Khalid Mazal and his family left Iraq after he was kidnapped by a Shia militia. They lived in Atlanta, Georgia before moving to Portland. They had heard that Portland was a safer community to live in.

  


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